[Viewpoint] Will it be elections or occupations?

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[Viewpoint] Will it be elections or occupations?

The 2012 calendar is full of election dates. A total of 58 nations worldwide will hit the polls for major elections this year. The United States, Japan, China, Russia and Korea face a change in our governing bodies. Foreign press question whether elections will go well. Political mistrust has never been so severe with a worldwide confrontation over wealth inequalities and inefficacy. Premiers of credit crisis-ridden Greece and Italy have been replaced without elections. The legislative democracy is under question. Protests and conflicts may eclipse democratic election procedures this year.

Political skepticism and its repercussions have been an epidemic worldwide. We are not the exception. An economic crisis in today’s globalized community cannot be addressed by individual states. Civilian complaints over social and economic inequalities have already surfaced in our society. The ruling Grand National Party and main opposition Democratic Unity Party are now at the mercy of outside forces. They await the verdict of dismantlement or reorganization. It remains to be seen whether politics will be revived by voters and overthrown by protesters.

The most important function of a political party is to select and field candidates for public office. But ironically in today’s political world, party identity or patronage can be a handicap. One GNP legislator in presenting a report on parliamentary activities hid his party affiliation. Some may not go that far, but most politicians are under similar insecurity. An outsider becomes an insider overnight in today’s politics.

Japan’s worries are greater. In Japanese, both words “election” and “occupation” ironically are pronounced as senkyo. The Asahi Shimbun in its New Year’s article series highlighted a “Democracy in Crisis,” warning occupation protests, not elections, will dominate the world’s focus this year. Japan’s confidence in leadership has long been thrown out the window. It can only be sensitive to repercussion. Japan has been emulating all politically-important events that panned out across the Pacific. It fears the Occupy Wall Street movement can reach its shores any time.

Why are we interested in these street movements? It is because they are motivated and spread through unprecedented means. They are not raised by a certain ringleader or systematically organized. They do not share a common goal or manifesto. Instead, they have culminated into a voluntary movement. It is as if direct democracy frustrated by its representative sibling that fails to read and respond to the people and market needs has gushed forward to do the work itself.

A reported 82.9 percent of 20-year-olds and 84.6 percent of 30-year-olds say they are extremely displeased with the inequalities of our society and economy. Their target of complaint, needless to say, is clueless mainstream politics. They are distrustful of the governance capabilities within the parliamentary democracy system. The question is where their frustration will head. They could either turn to the extreme right or left or directly take part in a democratization movement through street protests like Occupy Wall Street.

Francis Fukuyama in his 1989 essay “The End of History?” argued that under Western style of liberal democracy, we will see the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and live happily ever after. Capitalism and representative democracy will become universal. But a new era has begun with widening inequalities in society and in the economy.

Politics has the historical role of coming up with solutions to these problems. But is there a governance system that can successfully combat these problems? It is premature to be entirely skeptical. But we cannot but be discouraged by the sight of a stumbling political community without a sense of centrality. Occupation, not election, may rule this year. But we sincerely hope politics somehow will find its path. Otherwise, more cities will come under civilian occupation.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has been arguing there was something greatly wrong with a capitalism mechanism where profits fatten pockets of business entrepreneurs while losses are taxed upon ordinary citizens. The 99 percent taxpayers naturally raved over his censure. Are our politicians capable of winning over the “99 percent” common people who are frustrated over paying the price for the mistakes of the minority elites? Finding the answer is their biggest test in this election year.

*Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
The author is a professor of political science at Seoul National University.

By Chang Dal-joong
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